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Poltieke filosofie

The unholy alliance of neoliberalism and postmodernism

Hans van Zon

During the past three decades two ideolo- Do the fragmentation of In neoliberal thought, that is the ideologi-
gies came to the fore that both claim scien- society, exposure to marketing cal expression of the rule of finance capital,
(‘being yourself’), increased
tific foundations and that influenced poli- existential uncertainty connected society is reduced to economy, economy
tical developments in the Western world to mass unemployment and contract reduced to market economy and market
very much. It will be argued that both belief work, further the perverted economy to financial markets.
individualism and commercialization
systems undermine the immune system of of social relations? Or will
society, neoliberalism by commercializa- these social ills feed into a Commercial society developed in the womb
tion of even the most sacred domains and new European Renaissance? of a society rooted in many different lega-
postmodernism by its super-relativism and cies but gradually the former is superseding
refusal to recognize any hierarchy in value 3. The individual is the basic unit of soci- other aspects of our civilization. The most
or belief systems.1 ety and the pursuit of self-interest benefits basic institutions are transforming into
society. contractual arrangements. Neoliberals see
Although a discussion of neoliberalism and 4. Free markets further democracy, civil as the driving force of human behaviour
postmodernism is rather hazardous because society and a pluralistic society. self-interest which is beneficial for society
these currents of thought are not clearly de- 5. Private enterprises are better run than pu- as a whole. The manifold ties that keep so-
fined, such a discussion is important due blic enterprises. ciety together and protect society against
to the impact these belief systems had on 6. More equality means less efficiency. wild capitalism are gradually unravelled.
societal developments over the past three 7. The sole aim of the enterprise is creating Neoliberals see nature as something exter-
decades, especially due to its dominance in shareholder value. Ownership rights should nal to humankind (dualism) and nature is
the public discourse.2 not be challenged by other stakeholders there to be consumed and mastered by man.
(unrestricted property rights).
Neoliberalism and commercial 8. All barriers to trade, investment and in- As Polanyi argued ‘acceptance of mar-
society ternational financial transactions should be ket principles at the core of modern soci-
eliminated.6 ety invites disaster’.8 Anglican Archbishop
During the last thirty years a new ortho- 9. Economic interdependence in the con- Rowan Williams was right to quote Marx,
doxy emerged within the political class text of a market driven world economy saying that “unbridled capitalism becomes
of most Western countries regarding how breeds prosperity and furthers peace.7 a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, po-
society and the economy should be orga- 10. Economics is a universal science based wer and agency to things that have no life
nized.3 It encompasses the belief that the upon the objective laws of the market and in themselves” (The Spectator, 16 March
market is the natural state of society.4 The applicable to every economy regardless of 2012). Now, in the parlance of the Anglo-
following beliefs constitute the cornersto- its level of development or its culture. Saxon mainstream media, it is already
nes of neoliberalism: commonplace to speak about (financial)
markets feeling, thinking and acting.
1. The state should not have a develop- Many elements mentioned above can be
mental role but merely a regulatory role. found in the liberal tradition. New in neoli- Postmodernism, super-rela-
The state should not interfere in markets. beralism is the claim that all human so- tivism and culture as a life-
Markets strive after equilibrium and are cieties should become liberal-democratic choice
the most efficient allocation mechanism. societies, a shift from an emphasis on pro-
Markets should be the main order-creating perty rights to contracts in general, empha- Postmodernism originated in France,
mechanism in society. sis on national competitiveness, the belief among post-Marxist philosophers. It was
2. The overarching aim of government is that nothing should be non-market, and spread first through academia (mainly so-
to enhance national competitiveness. All that there should be no distinction between cial and cultural sciences) and became
other goals are sub-ordinate.5 market society and market economy. dominant in specific segments of the broa-
der left, especially the movements dealing
with gender and race issues.9 The focus is


The unholy alliance of neoliberalism and postmodernism  -   Hans van Zon

an expression of contemporary fragmented


Postmodernity fits very well with the cult

of authenticity and an attitude of ‘anything
goes’ (in whatever field). Postmodernism
lumps together individualism and autono-
my and places the ‘me’ in the centre of its
projects (see also Guillebaud, 1999, p.288).
In postmodernism everything normative is
experienced as repressive. Each individual
should establish for himself what is good
or bad. Postmodernism allows a permanent
stretching of established norms.14 There
also ceased to be a distinction between
good and bad sexual practices.

Postmodernists also criticize the Enlighten-

ment (modernity) for embracing the belief
in progress and the belief that society can
be steered. It is assumed that a ‘primitive
on cultural rather than economic issues. According to Derrida, ‘there is nothing belief’ in progress (utopia) led to the to-
It aims to criticize oppressive systems of but the text’. Texts are endless grammati- talitarian disasters of the 20th century.15
power by de-constructing ideology. It pre- cal chains of meanings that only refer to Postmodernists reject the meta-narratives
tends, according to Derrida, to reveal what themselves, not to reality. Postmodernists of the 20th century (socialism and fas-
history (and philosophers) tried to hide or dismiss any coherent link between langu- cism), but most of them do not say any-
exclude. It does not offer a positive theory age and an external reality. thing about neoliberalism (apparently not
of society; it promotes a culture of nega- considered to be a meta-narrative).16 Many
tion. It claims that there is no legitimacy No ‘narrative’ can claim superiority over postmodernists claim we have now entered
or authority in this world but only human another ‘narrative’. The same applies for a post-ideological era. Here the concept of
constructions that serve as a base for po- value systems. Postmodernism introduced ‘ideology’ is reduced to rigid doctrine. But
wer. Especially since the fall of the Ber- super-relativism. Art can be any creative instead of this postmodernists offer cyni-
lin Wall (1989) postmodernists started to activity and in art there is no distinction cism and defaitism.
focus their criticism also on emancipatory between high and low culture.10 Postmo-
ideologies. dernity not only devalues art and artistic Although postmodernists often criticize the
traditions, it also devalues tradition as Enlightenment, they very much show the
Postmodernism is deeply anti-theoretical. such. Typical Western concepts of reason shadow side of the Enlightenment themsel-
It is elusive as it does not offer a theore- and rationality are dismissed. Other civili- ves. There is little comprehension for the
tical framework that can be verified and zations or cultures should be judged on the vulnerability of the social fabric and the
falsified. The terminology is obscurantist. base of their own value systems, and not functionality of numerous traditions.17 The
Postmodernists equate scientific theories on the base of Western norms and values. breaking of societal taboos is in itself al-
with ‘narratives’. Reality, truth and mea- Postmodernism also devalues past accom- ready considered progressive.
ning are socially constructed. Truth is plishments of (Western) civilization.
dependent on contextual factors. Reason For modernists and postmodernists, the
is no longer necessarily preferred over un- It is especially postmodernist thought that past is not decisive anymore, but overta-
reason, nor is any moral code binding. Ac- underpinned the ideological foundations of ken. For postmodernists, to be autonomous
cording to postmodern authors, reality is multi-cultural society, in the sense of a so- means not to fit anymore into a specific
not mirrored in human understanding of it, ciety in which numerous cultures (‘culture social coherence and engagement. But for
but is rather constructed. Postmodernism as a life choice’) live together but where the Hannah Arendt an individual existence is
focuses on relative truths of each person or common roof is (almost) absent. The main- beyond reach for someone who does not
within each paradigm. Realities are plural stream culture is denied or ignored while share a heritage.
and relative and dependent on who the in- the cultures of minorities are cherished.11
terested parties are and what the nature of The new cultural sensibility contributes to The problem for many (post)modernists is
their interests are. Truth, according to Fou- the silencing of the traditional social sensi- that they, with Descartes, consider the ra-
cault, is linked to power. Although we may bility (see Guillebauld, 199912, p. 181).13 tio as trans-cultural and oppose ratio and
never find the truth, but many postmoder- The individual triumphs in the new post- culture. However, culture, as Finkielkraut
nists even gave up the aim of truth-finding. modern condition, but is less protected. It says, is the art of constituting a community
seems that postmodernism is very much with the dead.18 However, postmodernists


often do not see that we are standing on the 7. Neoliberals advocate de-regulation in It also paved the way for ‘the freedom of
shoulders of our forefathers, in a tradition economic life while postmodernists advo- choice’ ideology and consumer society and
that is often non-reflected. Culture can also cate de-regulation in the cultural sphere. here, again, parallels with neoliberalism
be seen as the mystery of transfer of tra- The new relativism of postmodernism are obvious.26
dition. Postmodernists oppose tradition but matches with the laissez-faire attitude of
our existence cannot be thought outside un- neoliberals. The 1960s constitute an anti-authoritarian
questioning transfer and imitation.19 Post- 8. Both currents of thought place the iso- revolution, revolting against forced con-
modernists harbor a grudge against their lated individual in the centre of attention. formity. Congruent to this, new ideas and
own historical dimension.20 Everybody has his/her own culture. The ‘I’ theories spread about how to free oneself
is liberated from the ‘we’. from socially imposed norms and to create
This ignorance of culture and tradition 9. Both deny the possibility of steering or a new self. In this way you could choose
made it so easy for postmodernists to re- planning social developments, but pro- your own lifestyle. In view of the difficul-
place culture by a constitutional patriotism, claim the ability of individuals to re-create ties revolutionizing the existing order, the
the idea that only the rule of law can create themselves. new idea spread that the priority should be
a community. first to change yourself, then, eventually,
your environment.27 Only the individual
Of course, this short description of post- Given the above mentioned commonalities matters and it is not selfish anymore to
modernism does not reflect adequately the we can say that postmodernism and neoli- be pre-occupied with the pursuit of your
new insights of postmodern philosophers beralism complement each other. Postmo- own happiness. The new perverted indivi-
and social scientists. It emphasized the dernism is a belief system that mainly finds dualism (with the search for authenticity)
features that came to the fore in the public adherents in (formerly) leftish circles while devalued the concept of the public good.28
discourse and the way postmodern thought neoliberalism mainly finds support in con- The new man that is emerging in Western
was shaped and conceived by a broader cir- servative segments of society. Within the societies, that sees his personal freedom
cle of adepts. broad left there is a division of labor: post- and subjective assessment as the utmost
modernists dealt with cultural questions reality, seems, in last instance, the outcome
Complementarity and were usually not interested in socio- of a process that started with the Enligh-
economic issues that were left to neolibe- tenment. Men is not anymore driven by a
Neoliberalism and postmodernism are rals. Postmodernism disarmed the left with cultural inspiration that transcends the in-
very different, the first the dominant be- respect to neoliberalism. Both ideologies dividual but has to take everything from
lief system since the 1980s, while the se- helped to focus people on themselves (or himself.
cond claims to ‘de-construct’ dominant sub-culture) rather than the public good.23
ideology. Nevertheless, there are some As seen by many postmodernists and neoli- Of course, this description seems too
commonalities: berals, by distancing from ideology, philo- gloomy in view of social practices of the
sophy of life and traditions the citizen got a majority of people that have changed very
1. They both, implicitly, advocate neu- lot of freedom in exchange for an economic slowly. The question is to what extent
tral liberalism.21 Both postmodernists and definition of citizenship as a consumer.24 changes in the intellectual discourse descri-
neoliberals emphasize the importance of bed above are influencing public opinion at
procedures regarding keeping society to- Looking back at the last three decades we large and social practices of the majority.
gether (rule of law). Society is, at most, a can say that in the West the left (in which
collection of subcultures. Both are satisfied postmodernism is firmly based) has won Big business responded to the new lifestyle
with market society. the culture wars, while the right (where movement and started to offer a new range
2. Both neoliberals and postmodernists do neoliberalism first emerged) has won the of products. They even actively began sup-
not like borders. Borders are only there to economic war. porting the differentiation of lifestyles.
be crossed.22 Business started to better respond to consu-
3. Both postmodernists and neoliberals do The 1960s revolution revisited mer demands that they themselves helped
not deal with questions of meaning. Exis- to create.
tential questions and questions related to Postmodernism is part of a conglomerate
the Good Society are irrelevant. of overlapping theories and belief systems Conservative politicians started to respond
4. Both emphasize individual rights rather that have emerged within the broader left to the epochal changes in society. First Ro-
than duties. since the 1960s. Tony Judt rightly pointed nald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher started
5. Both emphasize the positive role of the to the fact that the 1968 generation did not to appeal to the individual that does not feel
pursuit of individual interest. share the pursuit of the common interest anymore primarily a member of his/her
6. Both advocate the abolition of traditions but above all the rights and needs of each class but as an unique individual with spe-
(i.e. remnants of traditional society, non- individual separately, meaning ‘to do your cific needs. People are portrayed as indivi-
reflected and therefore anti-rational). Both own thing’.25 This paved the way for iden- duals who express themselves. Individuals
currents of thought have a problematic re- tity policies. The ‘we’ is only recognized can create their own world and happiness
lationship with the past. if it is explicitly chosen by the ‘I’. It led to irrespective of the society they live in.
a diminished feeling of common purpose.


The unholy alliance of neoliberalism and postmodernism  -   Hans van Zon

In Europe we have mixed economies. A

mixed economy is a society with markets
without necessarily being dominated by
them. Capitalism is an attempt to disembed
the economy and grant it a central, autono-
mous and superior role in the construction
and maintenance of society. Capitalism is
the rule of capital. Markets are merely a ve-
hicle to be used when profitable and to be
ignored whenever a liability. The unsatis-
factory compromise offered by liberalism
is to separate the political from the econo-
mic leaving the economy to the abstraction
known as ‘the markets’ (i.e. corporate in-
terests). As Wallerstein has argued, capita-
lism so far only functioned in the context of
other, often pre-capitalist forces, that could
restrain capital. He showed that different
production methods can co-exist and that
capitalism can only live surrounded by and
at the cost of other production methods.
Capitalism in the real world is above all in
the context of a hierarchy of social formati-
ons and it nestles at the top.30

Europe has to re-connect to these non-capi-

Reagan and Thatcher made for the first postmodernism and neoliberalism are rela- talist legacies of European culture and re-
time denial of compassion respectable. ted to structural changes in European socie- embed the economy into society. It implies
The poor are not poor anymore due to bad ties and economies. Do the fragmentation re-discovering our roots and put it on a new
luck or lack of opportunities but because of society, exposure to marketing (‘being footing. With respect to postmodernism, it
of their own failure. Instead of solidarity yourself’), increased existential uncertain- implies re-inventing modernity, believing
the new appeal is ‘own responsibility’. ty connected to mass unemployment and in the possibility and the necessity of social
contract work, further the perverted indi- progress, the need to steer social develop-
The triumph of failed ideas and vidualism and commercialization of so- ment and to think about the Good Society.
a European Renaissance cial relations? Or will these social ills feed It also implies assessing the shadow sides
into a new European Renaissance? Do the of the Enlightenment. As Habermas noti-
Shortly after the fall of Lehman brothers proliferation of sub-cultures (e.g. LGBT, ced, the Enlightenment is an unfinished
(2008) there was a widespread opinion that squatters, hip-hop) and a multitude of one- project.31
market-fundamentalism had failed. Howe- issue movements (e.g. Greenpeace, Am-
ver, everywhere in the Western world mar- nesty etc.) feed into the concept of society Haarlem, 8 February 2013
ket fundamentalists are still in the driving as a mere conglomeration of sub-cultures,
seats. But neoliberalism has been adjusted where old class divisions and a generally Notes:
somewhat to fit into the new circumstan- shared civic mentality are a thing of the
ces (for example government support for past? We will not deal here with the impact of neoli-
banks that are ‘too big to fail’). beralism and postmodernism upon social deve-
Advanced western economies were foun- lopment. The manifold factors contributing to
Also, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy ded not only on free markets and indivi- the coming to the fore of these belief systems
and David Cameron have said that ‘mul- dual incentives. They were also founded on and the material forces supporting them are out-
ticultural society has failed’( they actually hierarchies (vertical rules) and on strategies side the scope of this article.
pointed to the failed policies with respect of cooperation (horizontal rules) that have Therefore we will use here a Weberian ideal-
to non-integrated ethnic minorities). But much deeper roots. The mainstream view typical approach. Weber himself wrote: “An ide-
postmodern belief systems, that underpin- of what constitutes a market economy is al type is formed by the one-sided accentuation
ned multicultural society as defined above, profoundly wrong as is the recently crea- of one or more points of view and by the synthe-
are still very much alive, in particular in ted antagonism between the state and the sis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less
academia and within the left.29 market. The term ‘market economy’ is a present and occasionally absent concrete indivi-
conceptual prison. dual phenomena, which are arranged according
Given this triumph of failed ideas, to those onesidedly emphasized viewpoints into a
the question emerges to what extent unified analytical construct ...”


This orthodoxy is reflected it what came to be claim that other forms of oppression in white Greece and the subsequent crisis there already
known as the ‘Washington Consensus’ and im- patriarchal capitalist society are as important. It pointed to this problem. Although the Copenha-
plemented in the programs of the International provided those struggling for cultural and ethnic gen criteria established criteria for EU accession,
Monetary Fund and the World Bank. minority rights with a theoretical base. it seems that the EU is continuing on the path
4 14
An example is Trichet, ex director of the Euro- For example, in the UK, “parental orders” of including countries where the rule of law is,
pean Central Bank,, who said, 8 April 2010, that granted following surrogacy – to transfer the to say the least, questionable, where freedom of
‘the market is always right’ (Lehndorff, S. ed., child from the surrogate mother to the commis- speech is undermined and where crony capita-
2012, A triumph of failed ideas. European Mo- sioning parents – have risen from 47 in 2007 to lism is dominant.
dels of Capitalism in the Crisis. European Trade 133 in 2011 (The Independent, 28 December In main-stream economics, concepts of ‘the
Union Institute, p.6). 2012).’Wombs for hire’ is a growing business in public’, ‘public interest’ and ‘general welfare’
According to Tony Judt (Het land is moe. developing countries. have become arbitrary and meaningless (see N.
Verhandeling over onze ontevredenheid, 2010, As Stuart Hughes already argued in 1958 Häring and N. Douglas, 2012, Economists and
Contact; Amsterdam ,p. 192), the irresistible (Consciousness and Society), the presumed the Powerful, Anthem Press, p. 21). For Nobel
dynamics of global economic competition and fondness of the Enlightenment ‘for mechanistic prize winner James Buchanan, social groups
integration is the illusion of our times. and naive faith in human progress stand revea- have no organic existence apart of their individu-
US government documents elevate the concept led as largely the product of subsequent critical al parts. According to him, the ‘public interest’
of free trade to a ‘moral principle’. The US Natio- distortion’ (p. 27). is the disguised interest of governing bureaucrats
nal Security Strategy (September 2002) states: Lyotard wrote: ‘I define postmodern as the (p. 24).
‘The concept of “free trade” arose as a moral disbelief with respect to meta-narratives’ (1984, See for this R. Brouwer, ‘Vrijheid als ideolo-
principle even before it became a pillar of eco- xxiv). gie’, in T. Bakker, R. Brouwer (2008) Liberti-
nomics. If you can make something that others As Gadamer noticed, the fundamental pre- cide – kritische reflecties op het neoliberalisme,
value, you should be able to sell it to them. If judice of the Enlightenment is the prejudice Uitgeverij Ijzer, Utrecht.
others make something that you value, you against prejudices that led to the undermining of T. Judt (2010), o.c.
should be able to buy it. This is real freedom, tradition. According to Slavoj Žižek, ‘freedom of choice
the freedom for a person – or a nation – to make A. Finkielkraut (2000), Ondankbaarheid. only functions if a complex network of legal,
a living’. Een gesprek over onze tijd, Uitgeverij Contact, educational, ethical, economic and other condi-
Even weeks before the outbreak of World War Amsterdam/Antwerpen. tions is present as the invisible background to
1, most observers thought that war between the This is not a plea for the unquestioned ac- the exercise of our freedom’ (The Guardian, 13
great powers was unthinkable because of the de- ceptation of tradition but the recognition that, November 2012).
licate interdependence that had grown during the de facto, a large part of our existence depends See for this the BBC series ‘The Century of
first wave of globalization. on the unquestioned acceptance of tradition and the Self’ (2002) by Adam Curtis (http://archive.
K. Polanyi,1944, The Great Transformation. heritage. org/details/TheCenturyOfTheSelf).
9 20 28
Postmodernism,  in Western philosophy, a late An example is language: individuals do not Eric Hobsbawn observed that ‘the destruction
20th-century movement characterized by broad constitute a linguistic community but a linguistic of the past, or rather the social mechanisms that
skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general community constitutes individuals. connect contemporaries to past generations, is
suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to In neutral liberalism participants in society do one of the most characteristic and most myste-
the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining not need to share an idea about ‘the good soci- rious phenomena of the end of the short twen-
political and economic power (Encyclopedia ety’ because liberalism is only about procedures tieth century’ (quoted in Le Monde Diplomati-
Britannica – http://www.britannica.com/EB- in decision making (this idea is elaborated in que, November 2012, translation by author). See
checked/topic/1077292/postmodernism). The John Rawls’ Theory of Justice). So, the structure for a critique of postmodernism A. Sokal and J.
best known postmodern authors are, all French: of society is essential and not the end-result. Bricmont (1997), Intellectual Impostures, Pro-
Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze, Barthes, In Sloterdijk’s terminology, state borders file Books, London.
Baudrillard, Irigaray, Kristeva and Lacan. can also be seen as part of an immune system Of course, multi-cultural society, as defined
I would argue, with Scruton, that high culture of nationally organized society. Postmodernists broadly, is a fact of life. The question is what
can be seen as a rite de passage to the world of emphasize the need to lift borders, as much keeps society together and how to integrate the
the dead. as possible, for the free movement of people, multitude of sub-cultures.
11 30
Europe parades its misdeeds rather than its neoliberals emphasize the need for the freeing See Braudel, F. (1990) Beschaving, economie
heroic deeds. Europe cheers itself because it of cross border capital flows. An interesting en kapitalisme. De tijd van de wereld. Contact,
does not cheer anymore itself. It is proud of its example is the debate about widening the EU. Amsterdam, p. 16.
shame. The Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom no- Neoliberals welcome the eventual inclusion L. Abicht (2007) De Verlichting vandaag,
ticed that we gained over the past five decades all of Turkey because including a big market that Houtekiet, p. 97.
kinds of worlds but that we are slowly losing our also might serve as a bridge to the Middle East
own (De Morgen 19 November 2009). should benefit the EU. Postmodernists want to
J.-C. Guillebaud (1999), La Refondation du welcome Turkey because we cannot refuse an
Monde, Editions du Seuil, Paris. Islamic country. But few are asking the question
While in the tradition of the Left the capital- whether it is good to include a country where the
labor nexus was perceived as the main contra- organization of society and economy is very dif-
diction in capitalist society, postmodern thinkers ferent from core EU countries. The inclusion of